Thoburn, Isabella (1840–1901)

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Thoburn, Isabella (1840–1901)

American Methodist evangelist, missionary, and educator. Born on March 29, 1840, near St. Clairsville, Ohio; died on September 1, 1901, in Lucknow, India; ninth of ten children of Matthew Thoburn (d. 1850, a farmer) and Jane Lyle (Crawford) Thoburn; educated at Wheeling Female Seminary in Wheeling, Virginia (now West Virginia); spent one year at Cincinnati Academy of Design.

Taught in several public and private schools; went to India as missionary (1869); began work in Lucknow (1870); opened the Lal Bagh Boarding School (1871); served as principal of girls' school in Cawnpore (1874); returned to the U.S. on furlough to travel and lecture on missionary work (1880–82); Lal Bagh became the Girls' High School and added collegiate department (1887); during second furlough, worked in Chicago with Lucy Meyer and taught at the Chicago Training School for City, Home, and Foreign Missions (1887–88); in Cincinnati, helped organize the Elizabeth Gamble Deaconess Home and Training School and helped direct Christ Hospital; returned to Lucknow and Lal Bagh (late 1890); helped establish the Wellesley School for girls in Naini Tal (1891); Lal Bagh added a teachers' course and kindergarten (1893); granted charter for Lucknow Woman's College (1895); made fund-raising tour of the United States (1899–1900); Lucknow Woman's College renamed Isabella Thoburn College (1903), and later became women's college of Lucknow University.

Isabella Thoburn's missionary work took her halfway around the world to the country of India, and she devoted most of her evangelical life there to opening up educational opportunities for girls and young women. Born in St. Clairsville, Ohio, in 1840 and raised a Methodist, she entered the Wheeling Female Seminary in Wheeling, Virginia (now West Virginia) at age 14. She completed the course and became a teacher in Ohio, then returned to the seminary for a self-directed course of study. She attended the Cincinnati Academy of Design for one year as an art student, then worked for several years as a teacher in Wheeling, Virginia, New Castle, Pennsylvania, and at Western Reserve Seminary, a Methodist school in West Farmington, Ohio.

In 1859, Thoburn's brother James went to India to work as a Methodist missionary. He became convinced that the church needed women missionaries to reach the women of India, and in 1866 wrote to Thoburn, who had joined the church when she was 19, suggesting that she join him. She was willing, but reluctant to come without formal authorization of the Methodist Church, which as yet had no agency to send out female missionaries. That changed in 1869 when the Women's Foreign Missionary Society of the Methodist Church was formed in Boston; one of its first undertakings was to send Thoburn to India. Accompanied by Dr. Clara A. Swain , who was sent to provide medical help to the women of India, she sailed from New York City, arriving in Bombay on January 7, 1870. Thoburn was assigned to the city of Lucknow, where her brother had just been appointed presiding elder of the province of Oudh.

She began her evangelistic work in the women's quarters of private houses while looking for a place to start a school for girls. In April she opened her first school, in a small room rented in the middle of the bazaar, with six Christian girls, four of them Hindustanis. Two months later, her class had grown to 17 pupils, and by the end of the first year, the school required its own building. This was provided by the Women's Foreign Missionary Society in 1871, when it purchased a palatial seven-acre property named Lal Bagh, meaning Ruby Garden, that had once belonged to an official in the court of the last king of Oudh. This expanded space made it possible for Thoburn to accept boarding students, a new concept in missionary work at the time, and to provide education in a Christian environment to a larger number of girls. Located between the English and Hindustani Methodist churches, Lal Bagh became the headquarters of women's missionary work in Lucknow, a center for missionary families in the city and province, and a hostel for visiting church workers.

Along with directing Lal Bagh, Thoburn taught Sunday school classes for poor children, mostly Eurasian children of mixed European and Asian ancestry, and later for poor Hindu girls as well. She also directed a group of women evangelists known as "Bible Readers." In 1874, she added to this work the job of principal of a girls' school in Cawnpore, 45 miles from Lucknow. She not only evangelized, she practiced what she preached. Her students could come to her with any problem, and she would help and care for them. She consciously set an example for both the Christian workers under her directorship and the girls in Meyer's schools. Both friends and acquaintances were deeply impressed by her selfless service, and she emphasized Christian community to overcome the differences of caste and race.

In 1880, Thoburn suffered ill health and returned to the United States, ostensibly to recuperate. She had little rest, however, because she engaged in a speaking tour that took her all over the country. She returned to Lal Bagh in 1882 and resumed her role of principal, adding a "normal" class to prepare girls for evangelistic work. Her health began to fail again two years later, and she was granted a second furlough in 1886 that lasted until 1890. During that time she became active in the new deaconess movement in the Methodist Church, which enlisted women for service in social institutions such as hospitals and orphanages. She worked for a year with Lucy Meyer as a teacher in her Chicago Training School for City, Home, and Foreign Missions and as a chaperon for some of her recruits. In December 1888, she was called to Cincinnati, Ohio, to organize and superintend the new Elizabeth Gamble Deaconess Home and oversee its expansion to include Christ Hospital.

Late in 1890, Thoburn returned to Lucknow. In her absence, Lal Bagh had become the Girls' High School and had expanded to include more Eurasian and European students, as well as non-Christian students. In 1887, as a result of a suggestion made by Thoburn before her departure, a collegiate department had been added to meet the need for higher studies for girls. Although it started out with only three students and was slow to grow, it eventually became Lucknow Woman's College. When Thoburn returned, Lal Bagh had 160 pupils, including 96 boarders. Her responsibilities included developing the college, service in the local Hindustani Methodist church, helping to establish the Wellesley School for girls in Naini Tal in 1891, and editing a semimonthly Hindi-language paper for mothers and children called Rafiq-i-Niswan (Woman's Friend). In 1893, the school added a teachers' class and a kindergarten department.

The government granted the college a charter in 1895, and the new building required so much capital that Thoburn was sent to America in 1899 to raise funds. She traveled in the company of Lilavati Singh , one of her graduates and teachers, and toured the country, making a lasting impression on audiences. They returned to India and Lucknow in 1900. In the summer of 1901, Thoburn resumed her work but suffered a sudden attack of cholera shortly afterward and died at the school at age 61. Her burial in Lucknow cemetery drew a large crowd of mourners. In 1903, Lucknow Woman's College was renamed Isabella Thoburn College; it later became the women's college of Lucknow University.


James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1971.

McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1980.

Malinda Mayer , writer and editor, Falmouth, Massachusetts